Design-led marketing in the pursuit of ‘feel’

Samar Habib is the founder and Director of Ascetic Studios Ltd. and Senior Multimedia Designer at Simon & Schuster UK. He has been working on bestselling campaigns for the best part of the last 20 years.

With design-led marketing, our intention is to evoke empathic responses within the blink of an eye, which we then aim to reinforce across multiple platform streams – all resulting in massively increased consumer interest.

We aim to communicate ‘feel’ in a marketing landscape within which we compete with much more immediate response-inducing media. Posters for the ‘year’s best crime thriller’ will be positioned alongside adverts for the latest Ed Sheeran album. One needs no explanation – ‘If you liked Ed Sheeran before, you’ll like this now’. The other has the much harder job of being able to immediately communicate the wide-ranging, emotional impression that a 300-page book will deliver, all within an estimated 3-minute London Underground dwell time. It’s a fine art to strike the right balance between ‘communicating product’ and ‘communicating feel’ and it takes months and months of campaign planning to settle on an approach upon which all stakeholders have settled.

Over the course of 15/20 years of working on bestselling fiction and non-fiction campaigns, I’ve come to realise that impact relies so much on great synergy between marketer and designer, and I’ve distilled these into 5 key takeaways.

1. Know your product

Designing campaigns for some of the biggest books in UK publishing requires intimate and extensive knowledge of the product, the consumer and the client’s intentions and desires.

When I was briefed by Fergus Edmondson at Headline to design the marketing campaign for the Maggie O’Farrell masterpiece Hamnet, it probably helped that I’d worked on previous Maggie O’Farrell campaigns, dating back to the award-winning The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox in 2006. I know the esteem with which Maggie is held at Headline, how much they care about her work and where they have positioned her in the market. In short, I know what they’re trying to communicate and to whom.

‘Hamnet is a special novel that readers have been responding to in an overwhelmingly positive way. As one of the biggest books of the year we wanted to convey the feeling that it is a beautifully written modern masterpiece. We wanted people to feel that if they hadn’t read it yet then they simply needed to. It’s not an easy thing to do but Sam really helped us hone and realise that vision.’

Fergus Edmondson, Marketing Director, Headline Publishing Group

2. Develop strong, lasting relationships

It’s absolutely essential for marketers and designers to develop strong, lasting relationships. I have worked with some of my clients for over 15 years. That allows for a level of intimacy and communication that makes the briefing process so much smoother. I worked with Fergus for years before he briefed me on Hamnet, the same with Merle Bennett at Penguin when she briefed me on the James Patterson campaigns, and the same with Dawn Burnett at Harper Collins when she briefed me on the Debbie Harry campaign. That length of time generates trust, faith, honesty and open communication. And, most of all, care. I care about doing the best job that I can for my clients because I care for them, their careers and the books that they work on.

Marketing for 'Fear No Evil' by James Patterson

‘I have worked with Sam on James Patterson’s marketing campaigns for years. Trust is a key factor for me when choosing a designer and I trust Sam more than most. He understood how important it was to me to maintain the integrity of JP’s brand and together we developed a new and exciting way of marketing his books.’

Merle Bennett, Head of Brand, James Patterson, Penguin Random House UK

3. Don’t be scared to be honest

Unlike some jobs, design-led marketing is exposing. It reveals a lot, publicly, about the person creating the artwork and the person who created the brief. We take an empty piece of paper, an empty Photoshop document, and fill it with art, imagery and content that intends to communicate the entire ‘feel’ of the product. With that in mind, it can be quite demoralising to receive negative feedback, especially when you’ve put your heart and soul into a project. You need to keep reminding yourself that you’re all aiming for the same end goal.

The strong relationships that you’ve developed will allow for free and open dialogue. It’s important for marketers to be able to say, explicitly, ‘this isn’t working’ and to re-align the parameters from the original brief. Constant reminders of what we’re trying to communicate, what we want the audience to ‘feel’ – we need to communicate ‘damaged perfection’, for example, or ‘complete beauty’ or ‘suburban crime’ – help to keep the campaign focused. Working on the campaign for the Lucy Foley bestseller The Guest List was a great example of just that. Abbie Salter at Harper Collins kept reiterating the point that: ‘Everything has to look perfect … we just need to communicate the feeling of distorted perfection.’

‘We created a mood board with cultural references that reinforced the aesthetic we were looking for from Sam’s design. Talking through this together meant Sam understood exactly what we wanted to communicate and nailed the aesthetic from the get-go.’

Abbie Salter, Senior Marketing Manager, HarperFiction

4. Be fluid

Mutual care between marketers and designers develops full investment in the campaign. The marketer’s campaign is my campaign: I care about the deadlines as much as they do. The campaigns must be as important to one person as to the other. Indeed, success for both parties is directly related with the success of the campaign. Marketing, especially during Covid, has had to be reactive and we have to be fluid and flexible enough to meet the demands of each other and the demands of the market.

5. Be as good as you can be

Keep improving, keep streamlining, keep supple and stay teachable. Learn new ways of doing things and learn how to do things better. Look at the market, look at the best work on the market and aim to be as good as that – not just in terms of publishing; look at Netflix advertising, Disney advertising, film advertising and understand that your campaigns are competing within that promotional landscape. Understand that it’s an honour to have your work seen by millions of people, millions of commuters, millions of browsers and that you are in the business of ‘creating culture’. Before consumers see the book cover, before they’ve read reviews, we create the first impression. When deadlines get tight and the pressure is on, it’s always worth remembering that.

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